The tragic loss of lives at the Gadani ship-breaking yard has once again exposed the extremely poor safety standards for workers in this country.
Iqbal Khan, 25, believes it is his mother’s prayers that saved him. He was one among scores of workers who were seriously injured in an explosion on November 1 during work on an oil tanker ship that was being dismantled at the country’s sole ship-breaking industry in Gadani. Gadani is a coastal area of the Lasbela district of Balochistan province, about 51 kilometres away from Karachi.
“I was busy cutting the ship with help of a gas cylinder at its first floor,” says Khan, who belongs to Swat valley. He was discharged from the Karachi Civil Hospital’s Burns Ward three days after being injured in the blast. “Suddenly, I heard an ear-piercing bang, making me unconscious. Within seconds, I realised I was in the sea.
Labourers gather following explosion at Gadani.
Fortunately, Khan knew how to swim and managed to save his life. However, five of Khan’s friends, belonging to various parts of Malakand Division, died in the explosion.
As of November 10, 29 workers have lost their lives and more than 60 are injured. The blast had ripped through a decommissioned Japanese-made MT Aces oil tanker, moored at plot no. 54 at the Gadani ship-breaking yard for dismantling. A fire engulfed the entire 24,000-ton vessel soon after the first blast, leaving all the workers entrapped inside.
The fire remained alight for four days, extinguishing all hopes for those who were thought to have been trapped alive inside. Ten workers are still missing since the fire, according to labour rights groups.
Though the ships have to be completely cleaned before they are disassembled, in order to avoid contact with toxic or ignitable material, the workers were forced to start the dismantling process before the fuel tank could be cleaned of the remaining highly inflammable oil and fumes. This was not the first time this malpractice occurred. It is a matter of routine and labour leaders at the ship-breaking industry say that it is done to save both money and time.
Workers at the site in Gadani say that the intensity of the explosion could be felt in a radius of two kilometres, sheets of heavy metal and debris have been recovered from all around the burning ship.
Interviews with workers and labour rights groups suggest that around 850 workers have lost their lives and more than 1,000 have lost their limbs or have suffered serious injuries in accidents at the Gadani ship-breaking yard since 1968 when it first became operational.
Bashir Mahmoodani, president of Gadani Ship-breaking Mazdoor Union, says it is perhaps the worst workplace in the world or especially in Pakistan where casualties in such large numbers have occurred during work. “For all these tragedies, including the recent one, the decommissioned ship owners, contractors, government bodies, such as labour, environment and social security departments, local administration and the Employees Old-Age Benefits Institution (EOBI) are responsible,” says Mahmoodani while talking to TNS.
“A judicial commission under a high court judge should be constituted to investigate Gadani ship-breaking yard accident; the ship owner, contractors and heads of government watchdog institutions should be arrested and tried for their negligence towards the labourers’ lives and environment,” he demands.
Currently, there are approximately 12,000 workers employed at Gadani ship-breaking yard. Majority of them, which include helpers, welders, drillers, crane operators and cleaners are from Malakand Division of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, followed by Seraiki parts of southern Punjab, Karachi and other districts of Balochistan. Also, a number of Bengalis and Rohingyas work there.
They work in an environment where electricity, clean drinking water, and basic human necessities such as washrooms are unavailable. After a rough day, the workers return to small makeshift huts that serve as their quarters. Many cannot afford shelter and sleep under the open sky.
Almost all of the workers are unregistered and hired as daily wagers, their wages rage from Rs700 to Rs1,500 per day. They are deprived of rights to social security, EOBI and other schemes because the owners and contractors, in collusion with government departments, have made it nearly impossible for the workers to access these benefits.
The workers are not given safety gears by their employers for the dangerous work of ship-breaking, labour leaders complain.
Labour leaders who have been researching and campaigning for rights of ship-breaking workers say that the owners and contractors in collusion with government bodies have imposed a law of the jungle at the ship-breaking industry — by violating the constitutional and legal rights of the labourers and overlooking the international treaties, conventions and agreements on the subject.
While ships were dismantled in Europe and Japan in the 1970s, the introduction of stricter laws and regulations to protect workers and the environment prompted the shift of ship-breaking activities to South Asia where laws are poorly enforced, reports on ship-breaking industries suggest. Ship-breaking practices in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have been strongly criticised by local and international groups that demand decent working conditions and environmental justice.
Despite the fact that the ship-breaking industry has existed in Pakistan for decades, the legal status of the industry is unclear and there are hardly any specific regulations or procedures in place. Nasir Mansoor, a veteran labour rights campaigner associated with the National Trade Union Federation, is part of a three-member committee, including former chief minister Abdul Malik Baloch, former spokesperson of Balochistan government Jan Muhammad Buledi, which is working on developing a code for Gadani’s ship-breaking workers for the first time on voluntary basis.
“Gadani’s ship-breaking industry lacks a comprehensive legal framework. Like the Docks Labour Board at the Karachi Port Trust, a ship-breaking labour board should be established to formalise the workers,” says Mansoor.
Citing examples of India and Turkey, he says they have made some special laws for health and safety and their implementation is ensured by the governments, due to which the casualty ratio in accidents has considerably declined. “The government must introduce a ship-breaking code like India has done; ILO convention regarding the work should be implemented and the Hong Kong convention should be ratified and new laws should be made in light of it,” he says.
The National Trade Union Federation’s (NTUF) Baloch expresses concerns that some forces are trying to present the accident as a terror activity to shift the world’s eye away from lack of, or zero, health and safety facilities to labourers and violations of the country’s and international labour laws and conventions.
Globally, around 1,000 to 1,200 ships are dismantled every year. Pakistan receives over 100 vessels every year for dismantling, according to data compiled by the Shipbreaking Platform, a Brussels-based non-government organisation.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) had also sent a fact-finding committee to Gadani to probe the accident. Asad Iqbal Butt, the HRCP’s vice-chairperson, says “they were short on equipment and training to deal with such a situation because of both the government and the industry. In the oil tanker blast, the government departments chose to look at the sky-leaning flames instead of putting them out and let the workers become coal.”
In the aftermath of the oil tanker fire tragedy, the yard remains closed with increased pressure from the locals that the government imposes stricter safety conditions than have been imposed hitherto. However, it is the poor daily wagers who are suffering the most because the government, in an ill-advised move, has decided to shut the ship-breaking yard till such a time as new laws pertaining to safety and health are formulated.
“This decision is tantamount to the economic murder of the 12,000 workers directly associated with the industry,” says Mansoor. “These workers earned wages daily, and in this scenario they and their families are being forced to sleep on empty stomachs. There are more than two million people indirectly related to the industry who have also been badly affected”.
He also says the ship-breaking industry caters to 30 per cent of the country’s iron and steel needs and its closure will only benefit the steel importers and have a negative impact on the economy.
Source: the news. 13 November 2016